Monday, February 27, 2023

CUP: A.J. Allmendinger slaps backstretch wall in Fontana finale

PHOTO: Brock Beard

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

A.J. Allmendinger picked up the 9th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Pala Casino 400 at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California when his #16 Farm Smart Chevrolet was involved in an accident after 75 of 200 laps.

The finish, which came in Allmendinger’s 396th series start, was his first of the season and first in a Cup points race since June 24, 2018 at Sears Point, 166 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 17th for the #16, the 641st from a crash, and the 832nd for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 37th for the #16, the 1,318th from a crash, and the 1,872nd for Chevrolet.

When Allmendinger was last featured in a LASTCAR Cup Series article, he had missed a shift at Sonoma with disastrous results, cutting short a road course race where he’d been heavily favored. He’d won his first Cup race at Watkins Glen four years earlier – the first for JTG-Daugherty Racing, and the team’s last until Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s victory in the Daytona 500 just seven days ago – but for 2019, “The Dinger’s” seat would go to then-rookie Ryan Preece.

A new opportunity came about with Kaulig Racing, which in 2019 was embarking on its fourth full-time XFINITY Series season and first with Justin Haley as driver. Looking to expand and score victories of their own, Kaulig entered Allmendinger in their second of three cars for the summer race at Daytona. The result of this “trophy hunting” was very nearly a 1-2-3 finish where Allmendinger finished 3rd behind Chastain and Haley – nearly, that is, before failing a post-race “vacuum” test resulted in a disqualification, classifying Allmendinger in last place.

Since then, few days have turned out that way. A five-race stint in 2019 became eleven in 2020, then full-time in 2021 and in 2022. During that span, no other driver has won the Charlotte “Roval” – the road race ace Allmendinger has claimed all four. To date, he claims 13 of Kaulig’s 19 career XFINITY Series wins, and made a Championship Four appearance in 2021 where he ranked a career-best 4th. After a similar restructuring of Kaulig’s two-car Cup program – with which Allmendinger claimed a second career victory at Indianapolis in 2021 – he has since returned to full-time Cup competition for 2023.

Following a 6th-place finish in last Sunday’s Daytona 500 – his first start in the “Great American Race” since 2018 – Allmendinger prepared for the following week’s race in Fontana, where his best Cup finish was a pair of 8th-place showings in 2014 and 2016. Primary sponsor Nutrien Ag Solutions would be joined by Farm Smart, whose logos adorned the green-and-white Chevrolet’s door panels. 

Winter Storm Piper wreaked havoc with all of California with particular focus on the region around the Auto Club Speedway, which was hosting its final events on the 2-mile configuration from 1997 before a planned redesign into a short track. All practice and qualifying was cancelled on Saturday, and the resulting formula used to set the lineup placed Allmendinger 6th on the grid.

Kyle Larson returns to the track after losing 17 laps
with electrical issues.

With only the Chartered entries arriving in California, no teams were sent home. Handed the 36th and final starting spot was Ty Dillon, looking to rebound from his last-place finish in last Sunday’s Daytona 500 in the #77 NationsGuard Chevrolet. With no teams incurring pre-race penalties, Dillon took the green flag immediately locked in a door-to-door battle with 35th-place starter Tyler Reddick in the #45 The Beast Unleashed Toyota. Reddick pulled away from Dillon by the end of Lap 1, when 11th-place starter Cody Ware in the #51 Biohaven Ford was holding up the inside line. Fighting serious handling issues, Ware plummeted to last by Lap 4, when he was already 0.247 back of Dillon’s Chevrolet. By Lap 6, Ware was behind by open track, 1.110 seconds back. The gap increased to nearly 3 seconds on Lap 8, and by the 11th circuit, he was 5.954 behind 35th place, or 16 seconds in front of the leader.

Last place suddenly changed hands on Lap 12 when Kyle Larson, defending winner of the 400, pitted with what was believed to be a dropped cylinder. The crew looked under the hood, and crew chief Cliff Daniels had Larson go through every page of his digital dashboard, reading off everything from lambda readings, voltage, and fuel pressure. Larson returned to the track on Lap 15, moments before the competition caution fell. The crew looked under the hood again, then changed tires and sent him back out. But the issue was still not resolved, and on Lap 18, Larson pulled behind the wall. He didn’t drive all the way to his garage stall, but stopped just past the entrance.

Allmendinger returns from the
infield care center.

As a crowd gathered around the car, the crew pulled out what appeared to be a wiring harness, and had a replacement on hand. On Lap 27, Larson re-fired the engine, cut it off, then fired it again on Lap 29. This time, the crew pushed Larson back to the track entrance, and the #5 was back out, 17 laps down. If Larson finished there, it would be both the first last-place run for the #5 in a Cup race at Fontana, and the first at the track for Hendrick Motorsports.
During the ensuing run, Larson’s crew would now use the rest of the race as a test session for the following week in Las Vegas. Due to this, they told him to keep running hard despite being out of contention, and ultimately gained back one of their 17 laps on track. At one point on Lap 48, Larson was racing in a knot of lead-lap traffic that included eventual race winner Kyle Busch. In between, Larson continued to relay information on the car, particularly the volt meter as the car continued to lose power.

At first, it appeared the next driver to join the last-place battle would be Chase Briscoe, whose #14 Rush Truck Centers Ford was mired outside the Top 30 for much of Stage 1. On Lap 54, Briscoe’s crew said the engine sounded “off-pitch,” and the driver said he felt like he had only 400hp on the straightaways, and each time lost seven carlengths to those in front of him. The end of Stage 1 on Lap 65 saved Briscoe, and the crew was able to make lengthy repairs on pit road. By the Lap 72 restart, Larson was still holding down last place, 16 laps down, with all 36 runners still on track.

Coming off Turn 2 on Lap 76, Allmendinger was running on the inside of Corey LaJoie’s #7 NEGU Chevrolet and Ryan Blaney’s #12 Wurth Ford. Blaney clipped the wall and bounced into LaJoie to his left, and LaJoie bumped Allmendinger into a long slide toward the inside wall. Allmendinger attempted to correct the slide, but couldn’t avoid smacking the inside barrier with the driver’s side, ultimately flattening all four tires. Under the ensuing caution, Allmendinger limped back to pit road, but the left-rear suspension appeared to be seriously damaged. “This thing is destroyed,” said Allmendinger on Lap 77. He made it to his stall the next time by, but on Lap 81, the crew directed him behind the wall and out of the race. Allmendinger was checked and released from the infield care center, and walked back to his hauler on Lap 89. Larson would soon pass Allmendinger for position, dropping the #16 to last. Larson finished 29th, having gained back one more of his 16 laps.

A stack-up on the ensuing restart completed the Bottom Five. Around nine rows back, Ty Dillon’s #77 was spun to the inside while Christopher Bell’s #20 SiriusXM Toyota pounded the wall with its right-front. Bell then collected a passing Aric Almirola in the #10 Smithfield Ford, which collided with teammate Ryan Preece in the #41 Haas Ford and Tyler Reddick in the #45. While Bell attempted to rejoin the race with the right-front fender cut away, he soon joined Preece, Reddick, and Almirola in the garage area, done for the afternoon.

Engine issues sideline Ty Dillon in final laps

Ty Dillon managed to run longer, driving out of the grass after the incident and completing 140 laps before the engine sputtered as he headed down the frontstretch with 61 laps to go. Dillon’s car was parked in the same spot as Larson’s from earlier in the race, and the driver didn’t climb out until Lap 167. When he did, I had the chance to speak with him:

Ty Dillon climbs out after the engine soured.

“We lost another motor,” he said. “We were really getting it together. All the guys did a good job digging all day and about to crack the Top 15 with our Nation's Guard Camaro and lost another motor. So we just gotta go to work. The engine guys are the best in the sport, so they'll get it figured out and we'll be fine.”

On the restart wreck that sent him into the grass, Dillon said, “I don't know - I checked up to miss hitting the 21 (of Harrison Burton) and somebody hit me pretty hard and just spun me, lifted the rear tires off the ground. But no damage done, just - I don't know whoever was leading the restart did a really poor job.”

Finally, I asked about the track conditions, and if weepers were a problem. “I couldn't tell if it was weepers, but it was really dusty and watery at first. It was kind of chaos and then right now the track's in good shape. It just took a little bit but it's just really green.”

*This marked the first last-place finish for both Allmendinger and the #16 in a Cup Series race at the Auto Club Speedway.

36) #16-A.J. Allmendinger / 75 laps / crash
35) #10-Aric Almirola / 86 laps / crash
34) #45-Tyler Reddick / 87 laps / crash
33) #41-Ryan Preece / 87 laps / crash
32) #20-Christopher Bell / 88 laps / crash

1st) Kaulig Racing, Spire Motorsports (1)

1st) Chevrolet (2)


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